These days, marketing moves fast. Gone are the days of singing frogs on logs; now agencies create campaigns that reflect what society is discussing at the moment. But there's a problem: If your creatives are always locked in a room inventing campaigns, how are they supposed to stay in touch with the tectonic cultural shifts happening in the outside world?
To promise social currency for big clients like Microsoft, the creative agency Mother created something like a mixture of an externship and Google's former 20% time program. By encouraging employees to work harder passion projects, the thinking goes, it will get them more in touch with the zeitgeist in their particular niche—which can lead to a more authentic kind of inspiration.
"That deep knowledge about a particular vertical can be a useful thing that we can take to our clients," says Mother partner Tom Webster, talking about his employees' passion projects. "It does something very good for the clients and it does something very good for the individual, because they're fulfilling a passion, a dream that they've always wanted to do and creating good out of that kind of stuff. And Microsoft suddenly has a little bit more swagger in its step that it can now talk about art, or talk about gay rights. It gives them a social currency, really. It's great."
Microsoft, in case you aren't aware, has not classically been associated with artistic street cred. The Mother-designed 1MSQFT project aims to change this, and it was the explorations of one Mother employee that led to the team discovering the perfect art for the campaign—Harlem's Vogue house dancing. Mother strategy division's Marissa Shrum pitched Vogue because it fit the project's goal to give space to unique art with passionate communities. It inspired a dazzling "21st-century version of a 19th-century ball" between Shrum's New York Vogue and New Orleans Bounce court communities, the centerpiece of May’s New Orleans Music Festival—and the largest 1MSQFT event to date. The video above is the culmination of the festival—a hot rod rally with freak bikes, horse riders, and every vehicle in between.
Mother is guided by a playful philosophy: "To make great work, have fun, and make a living. Always in that order." Its atrial three-floor New York office is filled with the likes of a taxidermied bear and a red British phone booth, homey knickknacks that disarm the professional chill of its pristine white desks.
Silicon Valley titans may have the market cornered in stocked fridges and free cafeterias, but Mother’s balance of irreverence and productivity makes it a warm, homey, and fantastic creative environment. Add to that a "flat, fluid" workplace that shifts desk assignment every three months (so new hires can rub elbows with agency partners) and you get a company that dispenses with everything it can—especially hierarchy—to forge a creative environment.
If this sounds loose and fuzzy, that’s how Mother’s creatives describe it—producing a self-acknowledged "cult of Mother" earned by an office-wide culture of respect. A positive feedback loop that forges loyalty from great creative leeway.
A project may appear that a creative believes would absolutely jibe with a band or artist the creative has made inroads with during Mother’s pseudo-20% time. But the creative isn’t subject to the typical pitching slog up the company hierarchy. Instead of approval, the creative hunts down allies within Mother, be they creative directors or content editors. Make a strong case and Mother could go all-in on partnering with said brand or artist for a high-profile project—and suddenly Microsoft is holding a ball and shakedown for the Vogue and Bounce courts.
Microsoft entrusted Mother with 1MSQFT because the creative agency had helmed Microsoft’s launch party for the Surface tablet in New York City two years ago—and knocked it out of the park. Instead of hiring celebrities or musicians to perform, the Mother creatives channeled the tablet’s personalization angle via NYC living ...by keying up a tablet for each NYC neighborhood. The resulting project, "Microtropolis", created a 200-foot-long Manhattan to walk through.
"In each neighborhood we had devices on top of buildings that represented Chelsea, the West Village, SoHo, Gramercy, Hell's Kitchen. We worked with local partners who we felt represented those areas, so we had Lincoln Center in the UWS and The Whitney in the UES," says Mother creative Josh Engmann.
Each neighborhood partner took ownership of their Surface and filled it with content representing their corner of Manhattan.
As it happens, The Whitney’s participation led them to strike up a conversation with Microsoft—and now the software giant is a technology partner of The Whitney. To Mother, that new relationship made this project a success.
"That’s what we mean when we talk about immeasurable, intangible value being exchanged that then turns into very tangible value," Shrum says. "These win-wins are being created for all parties."
Failure, then, is when the end result of the project doesn’t satisfy Mother’s triple goal to "make great work, have fun, and make a living."
"When things fail, they're not enjoyable here. The outcome might be successful. It's not because it didn't sell X or it didn't achieve Y—it's that everyone working on it wasn't very happy. It could've made us loads of money! But it just made everyone incredibly unhappy, would be a failure," Engmann says.
"The other component piece with experimenting is learning. Feeling like we learned something that will help us continue to empower creative people so that we can get better," Shrum says. "So the experiment could go terribly wrong, or nothing happened and it fizzled, and I learned that this combination of things doesn't produce."
Which is lofty—after all, somewhere near the top of any company, a bean counter is measuring the value of endeavors in dollars and cents. But Mother sees the abstract, intangible success of relationship building as groundwork for business partnerships.
"Yeah, there is someone at Microsoft looking at this line item and wondering 'what's this about?' How much value is this adding back?" Shrum says. "Being able to say 'intangible relationship building is leading to tangible results for this company' helps."
Financial results aren’t the only metric of success. After all, the goal of 1MSQFT is for Microsoft to create culture and make inroads with artists. When Mother creatives bring on artists as partners for a project, they give the artist extensive leeway to produce what they want. The artists produce work near and dear to them—work of which they’re proud enough to invite their friends and community.
"People take it very seriously when you're not controlling them. When you're giving them open space in which to create, there is this sense of personal responsibility to their art," said Shrum.
Back in February, another 1MSQFT project led Mother to partner with Solange Knowles and her artist/musician collective Saint Heron for Fashion Week.
"[Knowles] guest-curated the space. She actually had her own artwork. It was this entire wall of gold with this giant gold speaker stack," says Mother creative Thomas Kemeny. "Then at around midnight, someone was like 'Um, Beyonce just showed up.’ And that goes to the point of artists inviting their friends, saying 'Hey, you gotta check this thing out!’"
Mother may nearly require its creatives to delve into extracurricular passions, but the agency itself experiments on a macro scale. Mother Ventures, LLC started Dogmatic, an NYC-based hot dog chain, and White Pike Whiskey, a small-run craft whiskey line, among others. No Mother Ventures endeavor produces tech or expertise that directly improves Mother’s advertising game. Instead, Mother learns the workings of entirely different fields.
"There are things you learn that you don't know you're learning. Like White Pike allows us to dive deeply into understanding liquor distribution that applies to our client Diageo on a massive scale, or then to look at craft whiskey," Mother partner Webster says. "So when it comes to talking about a bespoke project at another time, we can talk about how whiskey can be a bespoke product as well."
Eight or nine years ago, Mother experimented by creating entire internal divisions, like Design and Experiential, Webster says. Today, that integration has built Mother a streamlined idea-to-prototype pipeline.
"A lot of shops have to go outside to find those resources, but we have a lot of really good producers in-house who can fast-prototype stuff across all different kinds of mediums—digital, physical, architectural, design," Webster says. "We can do a lot of that stuff really quickly in-house and then we have a huge fuzzy edge of makers and creators and specialists who we can tap into that we've worked with before to come up with the latest greatest thing."
At the end of the day, Mother is about making connections—from the client to the artist to the demographic. So when you have a hot rod vehicle rally in New Orleans judging the best rides from a chaotic mix of fancy cars, freak bikes, and dancing horses, you’re going to be making some culture.
"What happened in New Orleans is that we just brought all of these different combinations of things together and it was almost hard to explain to people," Shrum says. "Then these magical things happened when all these pieces combined. In the rally, we got people who were passionate about cars, people who were passionate about bikes, people who were passionate about horses, baton twirlers, and a hip-hop icon and we're gonna go meet in the 9th Ward. Under a bridge. In an abandoned dirt lot. And look at all these connections that happened and people whose perceptions were transformed?"
"I made a point of asking the participants, 'did you enjoy yourself?' And all of them said yes. That's an anecdotal measure of success," Engmann says.